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ED 426 064 

TM 029 283 








Antonucci, Mike 

Left at the Altar: The Teachers' Union Merger and the 
Prospects for Education Reform. 

Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, Washington, DC. 

24p . 

Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, 1015 18th Street, N.W., Suite 
300, Washington, DC 20036; Tel: 888-823-7474 (Toll Free); 
Web site: (single copies free). 
Collected Works - Serials (022) -- Reports - Descriptive 


Fordham Report; v2 nlO Oct 1998 
MF01/PC01 Plus Postage. 

♦Collective Bargaining; Educational History; Educational 
Policy; Elementary Secondary Education; Labor Relations; 
♦Mergers; Policy Formation; *Teacher Associations; Union 
Members; *Unions 

♦American Federation of Teachers; *National Education 


For more than a year the 2.3 million member National 
Education Association (NEA) and the 900,000 member American Federation of 
Teachers (AFT) engaged in merger negotiations. The plan was to bring American 
teachers together in one union for collective bargaining, political action, 
and education policy. This report gives a detailed picture of the maneuvers 
by the union leaders and their opponents, and the final vote that rejected 
the proposal. The report includes: a history of the NEA and 
AFT- -professionalism versus unionism; the negotiations- -the meeting of the 
joint council; principles of unity- -AFL-CIO affiliation, states' rights; the 
debate; the vote; and the future of the NEA. (SLD) 


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• Points of view or opinions stated in this 
document do not necessarily represent 
official OERI position or policy. 

by Mike Antonucci 





(/ordham (Report 

Vol. 2, No. 10 October 1998 

Left at the Altar 

The Teachers’ Union Merger and the 
Prospects for Education Reform 


Mike Antonucci 

4- ■ - THOMAS B. 




Table of Contents 

Foreword by Chester E. Finn, Jr Page iii 

Executive Summary Page v 

Introduction Page 1 

History Page 2 

Negotiations Page 4 

Principles of Unity Page 6 

The Debate Page 7 

The Vote Page 10 

The Future Page 1 3 

Conclusion Page 14 




Left at the Altar i 


Education reformers often name teachers' unions as the greatest obstacle to significant change. 
Indeed, the unions have come under heavy fire in recent years as obdurate, self-interested defenders 
of an unsatisfactory status quo. In reaction both to this criticism and to increasing reform 
momentum, they set about to strengthen themselves. A major step in that direction was the 
attempted merger of the two principal unions, the 2.3 million member National Education 
Association (NEA) and the 900,00 member American Federation of Teachers (AFT). 

While their romance was no secret, the education world was surprised by the announcement that a 
formal engagement might be entered into in July 1998, when delegates to both unions’ conventions 
were asked to vote on the principles of merger. As soon as these votes were scheduled, observers 
began speculating about the effects that a single, giant teachers’ union would have on education 
reform, as if approval of the merger were a done deal. 

One observer who didn't take that approval for granted was Mike Antonucci of the Education 
Intelligence Agency, who has been closely studying the NEA and AFT for years and whose 
perspicacity and tenacity in this complex assignment are remarkable. We asked Mike to report on 
the merger vote and bring his considerable investigative and analytic skills to the story. As 
delegates to the NEA’s national convention arrived in New Orleans to vote on the merger plan, 
Mike was there to watch and listen and ask questions. And when those delegates resoundingly 
rejected the proposed merger, Mike was uniquely situated to explain why. 

In this report, Mike Antonucci gives us a fly-on-the-wall account of the maneuvers by the union 
leaderships and their opponents — from the earliest negotiations, through state conventions, floor 
debate in New Orleans, proposal and counter-proposal, to the final vote. He describes with care 
how the NEA leadership misread the concerns of its members and then attempted to force its 
position on convention delegates. And he discusses what the failed merger portends — both for 
unions and for American education. 

Mike Antonucci is director of the Sacramento-based Education Intelligence Agency, which 
conducts education research, analysis and investigations. EIA’s reports have led to articles in 


Left at the Altar iii 

Education Week, the Detroit News, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and other newspapers. 
Antonucci has published articles in the Wall Street Journal, Investor's Business Daily, American 
Enterprise, Miami Herald, Sacramento Bee, National Review West, Los Angeles Daily News, 
Tampa Tribune, California Political Review, Contra Costa Times, Report Card, and elsewhere. 
Before moving into the field of education reporting, Mike specialized in military history and 
intelligence. Readers wishing to contact Mr. Antonucci directly may write to him at the Education 
Intelligence Agency, P.O. Box 2047, Carmichael, CA 95609 or send e-mail to 

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation is a private foundation that supports research, publications, 
and action projects in elementary/secondary education reform at the national level and in the 
Dayton area. Further information can be obtained from our web site ( 
or by writing us at 1015 18th Street, NW, Suite 300, Washington, DC 20036. (We can also be e- 
mailed through our web site.) This report is available in full on the Foundation’s web site, and hard 
copies can be obtained by calling 1-888-TBF-7474 (single copies are free). 

Chester E. Finn, Jr., President 
Thomas B. Fordham Foundation 
Washington, D.C. 

October 1998 


iv Mike Antonucci 

Executive Summary 

For more than a year, the 2.3 million member National Education Association and the 900,000 
member American Federation of Teachers engaged in vigorous merger negotiations. The plan was 
to bring the vast majority of U.S. teachers under one banner for collective bargaining, political 
action and education policy. All that was required was to present the plan to the representative 
bodies of both unions, who would sanction the merger and start the ball rolling. 

Would the two big unions, which each possessed virtual vetoes over education policy in Congress 
and most state legislatures, become a single national union monopoly, with all the evils and 
arrogance that monopolies imply? 

Hardly anyone noticed the debate that was going on within the NEA. In a matter of four months, the 
proposed merger went from a certainty to a disaster. Not only did it fail to achieve the necessary 
two-thirds majority; it failed to come close to a simple majority. What happened? And what 
happens now? 

The NEA's campaign to win votes for the Principles of Unity centered on the strength and influence 
that one huge union would have. The NEA saw the merger as providing a ready supply of needed 
reinforcements. NEA President Bob Chase and his staff appealed to the solidarity of teachers and of 
laborers. They depicted the proposed merger as a bold step that would reap great rewards. 

In its attempt to win support for the merger, the NEA leadership used the same strong-arm methods 
that had won it victory in countless elections. Against its own state affiliate leaders, this heavy- 
handed approach began to backfire. Instead of winning support for the Principles of Unity, it began 
to stiffen the opposition. 

"This is David versus Goliath," Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, told 
Education Week. "The whole leadership of the NEA and their finest PR people are lining up to 
shove this thing down our throats." 

The leaders of the NEA and the AFT found themselves facing an unprecedented rejection of a 
leadership-backed initiative; a proposal for follow-on negotiations that was opposed by 47 percent 
of NEA delegates; an upset and emboldened opposition faction within the NEA with opportunity 
for further cooperation among themselves; and AFT local leaders anxious to highlight their 
differences with the NEA. Post-merger commentaries have emphasized both unions’ commitment 
to continue negotiations. The NEA persuaded commentators that the merger vote was only a 
temporary setback. In fact, the campaign and vote on the Principles of Unity not only made merger 
of the NEA and AFT improbable in the near future, but they may also signal a sea change in the 

For the first time, the immediate future of the NEA is not entirely in the hands of its national leaders 
and staff. For good or ill, it is in the hands of the leaders of the anti-merger state affiliates. No 
merger can proceed without their support. The merger debate also demonstrated that NEA can no 
longer work its will on a pliant membership. Its grip on public education is similarly endangered. 


Left at the Altar v 


On July 5, 1998, Sally Grafentin, Chair of the 
National Education Association’s Elections 
Committee, stood nervously in front of 15,000 
delegates, guests and reporters. She read the 
results of that morning’s voting. As she gave the 
vote totals of the various constitutional and bylaws 
amendments, there was not a single sound from 
the huge crowd. Everyone sat silent and 
motionless, awaiting the results of the one vote 
that could make all the others academic. 

Ms. Grafentin then said: “The ballot 
proposition to accept the Unity principles, which 
require a two-thirds vote to pass, has failed.” 

The crowd exploded in cheers and applause for 
a full 25 seconds before they were called back to 
order by union President Bob Chase. Ms. 

Grafentin continued: “The Yes vote was 4,091 
with 42. 1 1 percent. The No vote: 5,624 — 57.89 

The assembly erupted yet again. The margin of 
defeat for the Principles of Unity, the document 
that outlined a proposed merger to create the 
nation’s largest labor union, had caught everyone 
by surprise. 

For more than a year, the 2.3 million member 
National Education Association (NEA) and the 
900,000 member American Federation of Teachers 
(AFT) had engaged in rigorous negotiations over 
merger. The New Organization, as it was blandly 
called in negotiation documents, would bring the 
vast majority of public school teachers and 
education employees under one banner for 
collective bargaining, political action and 
education policy. 

By January 1998, the framework for agreement 
had been set and in March the unions released the 
Principles of Unity. This document described the 
shape the new union would take, who would run it, 
and how its organizational structure would be built 
and administered. The Principles received the 
unanimous approval of the NEA Unity 
Negotiating Team, which consisted of the national 
union’s top executives and key officials of some of 
NEA’s largest state affiliates. 

All that was required was to present the 
document to the representative bodies of both 
unions, which would then sanction the merger and 
start the ball rolling. The AFT’s decision-making 
structure practically guaranteed support for the 
Principles. NEA might have to deal with some 
troublemakers, but it had an unblemished record in 
winning support for the initiatives of its leaders — 
particularly those of such importance. A few 
compromises here, a few promises there, and the 
deed would be done. So certain were the unions of 
ultimate passage, and so worried about the effects 
of a split vote, that they agreed any merger vote 
would require a two-thirds majority — even 
though the increased margin was not required by 
any NEA by-law or constitutional provision. 

Though there had been news of accelerated 
merger talks throughout 1997, people associated 
with the public education establishment were 
caught off guard by the announcement of the 
upcoming votes. What would a single, giant 
teachers’ union mean for the system? Even more 
concerned were those on the outside — people and 
organizations that were seeking education reform. 
Would the unions, which individually possessed 
virtual veto power over education policy drafted in 
Congress and most state legislatures, become a 

NEA and AFT Membership 





Left at the Altar 1 

national union monopoly, with all the evils and 
arrogance that monopolies imply? Would the 
mega-union become the immovable object against 
which reformers would beat themselves into 

For months, analysts and observers wondered 
and debated about the merger’ s possible effect on 
public education. Perhaps the union would use its 
enhanced clout to support issues of teacher quality, 
high academic standards and solid curricula. 
Perhaps it would use its vast political machine 
simply to wring increased spending on salaries and 
benefits from legislatures and taxpayers. 

Hardly anyone noticed the debate that was 
going on within the NEA. 

In a matter of four months, the proposed 
merger went from certainty to disaster for NEA’s 
leadership. Not only did they fail to achieve a two- 
thirds majority; they failed to come close to a 
simple majority. They lobbied, pressured and 

cajoled. They sent out “informational” packets on 
the merger. A letter went out above Mr. Chase’s 
signature to each and every one of the 9,700 
delegates, urging support for the Principles. State 
presidents known to be in favor of merger were 
hounded to deliver more votes for the Unity side. 
The night before the vote, pro-merger messages 
were left on the hotel phones of almost every first 
time delegate. 

Yet they were defeated handily. How? And 
what happens now? 

This report aims to answer those two 
questions, and others arising from the failure of the 
Principles of Unity. As someone who followed the 
events as they unfolded, and saw the writing on 
the wall back in April, I contend that the merger 
debate, vote and aftermath hold important lessons 
for people inside and outside the public education 


NEA and AFT have very different roots. 
Though the political agendas of the two national 
unions have become less and less distinguishable 
over the years, their dissimilar origins continue to 
cause friction between them today. 

NEA was founded in 1857 as a professional 
association of teachers, administrators and school 
superintendents. Even when teacher members 
became a majority, NEA Leadership tended to be 
dominated by administrators. The granting of a 
Congressional charter in 1906 (and with it, 
exemption from paying property taxes on its 
headquarters building in the District of Columbia) 
highlighted its detachment from traditional labor 
issues. The only other organizations Congress has 
ever chartered are the American Legion, 
AMVETS, American War Mothers, the American 
National Red Cross, the Boy Scouts of America, 
and the Disabled American Veterans. For the first 
104 years of its existence, NEA officially opposed 
collective bargaining. 

AFT was founded in 1916 and affiliated 
immediately with the American Federation of 
Labor. Its focus from the very beginning was on 



Mike Antonucci 

labor issues: wages, benefits, workplace conditions 
and bargaining. For many years, AFT had little 
success organizing large numbers of teachers, only 
increasing its modest membership at the same 
percentage as the growth of the teacher force. 

Professionalism vs. Unionism 

For years, administrators urged teachers to join 
NEA to keep them from practicing the collective 
bargaining advocated by the AFT. NEA focused 
on curriculum, education finance and teacher 
training. It wasn’t until 1961 that the conflict 
between the “professionalism” of NEA and the 
“unionism” of the AFT came to a head. In New 
York City, the United Federation of Teachers, an 
AFT affiliate led by the late A1 Shanker, 
engineered a collective bargaining vote among the 
city’s teachers. Not only did the teachers 
overwhelmingly support collective bargaining; 
they also chose UFT as their sole representative. 

The New York victory prompted AFT to seek 
representation elections in other states. Over the 
next three years, AFT membership nearly doubled. 
As city after city voted for exclusive AFT 


representation, NEA began to reconsider its focus 
on administrators and professional issues. Over a 
period of 15 years, NEA gradually invested greater 
money in labor issues, adopted a constitution that 
guaranteed teachers a majority in the governance 
structure, and took on all the trappings of a labor 
union until, by 1978, the Internal Revenue Service 
and the U.S. Department of Labor fully recognized 
NEA as a union. 

Though both unions sought to decertify 
affiliates of the other and win representation of 
those teachers for themselves (a process known as 
“raiding”), their major organizing efforts were 
concentrated on winning over teachers who had no 
representation. AFT, in attempting to organize the 
largest number of teachers in the 
shortest amount of time, had 
poured its initial resources into 
the large cities. It achieved a head 
start in urban areas that it still 
holds today. 

But NEA took to organizing 
like a fish to water. Through 
superior tactics — most notably, 
its aggressive lobbying in state 
legislatures — and financial 
firepower, NEA soon dominated teacher 
representation in most non-urban areas, while 
winning enough large urban districts to keep AFT 
on the defensive. The unions continued to battle 
for members, but there were lulls in the fighting. 
Some affiliates of NEA and AFT merged, and 
talks of a national merger began in the 1970s. The 
reasons offered then were the same as those given 
today. Competition between the two unions was 
considered wasteful. As NEA and AFT grew in 
size and political clout, they also picked up critics 
and opponents. A merger was seen as an 
opportunity to pool resources and combine forces. 
But NEA’s 1973 Representative Assembly 
established three non-negotiable conditions: no 
affiliation with AFL-CIO; guaranteed minority 
participation; and use of the secret ballot. At this 
point, the two organizations were still too different 
to comfortably merge, and talks quickly collapsed. 

As NEA continued its transformation into a 
traditional labor union, differences between the 

two associations began to disappear. Some 
philosophical and political conflicts remained, but 
NEA’s and AFT’s agendas have long been closer 
than is widely reported. AFT’s reputation for 
being more reform-minded is due in large part to 
the willingness of the late Albert Shanker 
(president of AFT from 1974 until his death in 
1997) to criticize public education and personally 
advocate bold reforms. When push came to shove, 
however, AFT and NEA ordinarily supported the 
same candidates, the same legislation and the same 
status quo. 

During the 1980s, while NEA and AFT were 
growing more alike, merger talks failed to gather 
steam due to the unwillingness of Shanker. 

Shanker was a huge fish in the 
smaller AFT pond. He had no 
ambitions to become the number 
two man in the larger NEA. And 
certainly NEA had no interest in 
handing itself over to Shanker. By 
1993, NEA had moved slightly on 
the AFL-CIO affiliation issue, now 
only stipulating that no affiliate be 
“required” to join AFL-CIO. 

Merger talk resurfaced in 1994. 
Preliminary discussions led the 1995 NEA 
Representative Assembly, the annual gathering of 
some 10,000 union delegates from across the 
country, to pass a new business item calling for 
continued negotiations with AFT for the ultimate 
purpose of merging the two organizations. It was 
under this authority that the Principles of Unity 
were negotiated. 

It wasn’t until Shanker’ s lengthy illness 
(followed by his death on February 22, 1997) and 
the accession of Sandra Feldman to the AFT 
presidency that the process accelerated. Feldman 
was not yet well-established in the national 
education world. And a merger, while consigning 
her to second place in the short term, would 
virtually assure her eventual leadership of a new 
organization almost four times the size of AFT. 

With public education under greater criticism 
for its poor performance, and with teachers’ 
unions increasingly cited as the main opposition to 
reform, it seemed the time had arrived to bolster 
the unions’ cause. Merger took on a new impetus. 

The political agendas of 
the two unions have 
become less and less 
but their dissimilar 
origins continue to 
cause friction. 


Left at the Altar 3 


The first step was to institute a national “no 
raid” agreement. This amounted to a cease-fire 
between the two organizations while discussions 
were taking place. The agreement took effect on 
January 1, 1997 and ran through May 31, 1998. 
NEA’s and AFT’s top officials directed the 
negotiations from the start. 

Negotiating teams met several times during the 
first half of 1997. While both sides were getting 
better acquainted, NEA and AFT approved 15 
mergers of local affiliates: 1 1 in Minnesota, 2 in 
New Mexico, 1 in Kansas and 1 in Montana. 
However, proposed state level mergers in New 
Mexico, Montana and Minnesota were placed on 
hold, pending the outcome of national 
negotiations. NEA in particular did not want state 
mergers to change the dynamics of the 
negotiations while they were taking place. 

Seeking to promote good fellowship, the 
negotiating teams developed the AFT/NEA Joint 
Council. Thirty members — 15 from each union 
— were appointed by their respective leaderships. 
But in their efforts to ensure cooperation, the 
unions chose participants who tended to be 
supportive of merger. Of the 15 council members 
appointed by NEA, only two represented states 
that would ultimately oppose merger. All 
represented large state affiliates. This shortage of 
opposition viewpoints was a mistake that was to 
be repeated several times by NEA. 

The Joint Council meets 

The first meeting of the Joint Council (in June 
1997) concentrated on the selection of appropriate 
areas for joint activities. “We have attempted to 
take on the tough issues in ways that represent 
common sense, proven practice, and fresh 
thinking, and to involve all constituencies in the 
process,” read a joint communique issued by Mr. 
Chase and Ms. Feldman. The areas selected were 
school discipline, school infrastructure, and 
teacher quality. 

When Mr. Chase announced the Joint 
Council’s agenda at a news conference in 
November 1997, he emphasized that it should “not 

be viewed in the context of a merger” but as a 
stand-alone effort to join forces with AFT for the 
good of public education. Others, however, saw 
the council’s formation as preliminary hand- 
holding. “If the joint council is successful in its 
work, it will increase the likelihood that a merger 
would occur sooner,” said Adam Urbanski, an 
articulate AFT vice president and president of the 
Rochester Teachers Association. “I think it’s wise 
not to get married to a stranger. So think of this as 
an organizational form of dating.” 

The NEA/ AFT Joint Council approved plans 
for a joint conference on teacher quality to be held 
in September 1998 and put together a panel of 
educators and business people to develop 
“innovative approaches in school financing.” 

Other actions approved included: producing a 
video on classroom management; releasing a state- 
by-state report on school discipline legislation; and 
creating state joint councils in several states. 

While the Joint Council began its work, union 
negotiating teams were also meeting and hashing 
out details. Five of the ten members on the NEA 
side were high-ranking national officers and staff: 
President Chase, Vice President Reg Weaver, 
Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Van Roekel, 

Executive Director Don Cameron, and Assistant 
Executive Director Evelyn Temple. The three state 
affiliate presidents on the team were from states 
known to support the concept of merger (New 
York, Washington and Florida). There were no 
outspoken anti-merger voices on the team. 

From the outset of negotiations, there was 
virtually no talk of differences in political agendas, 
or strongly held philosophical beliefs, or much 
difference of opinion on education matters at all. 
“We shared the same classroom experiences, the 
same dreams, even the same sense of humor,” said 
Mr. Chase. “In fact, listening to each other, we 
couldn’t tell a member of the NEA from a member 
of the AFT!” 

There were, however, long and drawn-out 
battles over the governance structure that the new 
organization would take. AFT consists of large 
urban locals with weak state affiliates. Many local 

4 Mike Antonucci 


presidents serve as officers in the national union. 
AFT officers can stand for re-election every two 
years for life. Its convention uses weighted voting 
that is reported by affiliate. It represents large 
numbers of non-education employees. And, of 
course, AFT is affiliated with the AFL-CIO. 

NEA, on the other hand, relies on strong state 
affiliates to provide services to locals. Officers can 
hold only one elected position, and there are term 
limits for every significant office. Convention 
voting is one person-one vote, by secret ballot. 
Only a handful of NEA state 
affiliates organize non- 
education employees. And, of 
course, NEA is not affiliated 
with AFL-CIO. 

Early in the discussions, the 
decision was made that no one 
would lose his or her job due to 
the merger. So a place had to be 
found not only for every officer 
of both unions, but also for every member of the 
unions’ sizable permanent staff. This decision led 
to compromises that ultimately helped sink the 

For months, progress was made over dividing 
the spoils — who would run what and for how 
long. The AFL-CIO question was more difficult to 
finesse. Continued affiliation with AFL-CIO was 
AFT’s one non-negotiable demand. The new 
organization would be affiliated, and no AFT local 
would be permitted to disaffiliate. NEA entered 
the negotiations hoping to establish a special “non- 
affiliation” affiliation with AFL-CIO, whereby the 
new organization would retain NEA’s 
independence, but would establish organizational 
ties of some sort with the union coalition. This 
nuanced position didn’t last long, and NEA was 
forced to its fallback position: AFL-CIO affiliation 
only at the national level. State and local affiliates 
would be free to affiliate or not, as they wished. 

AFT negotiators accepted this on condition 
that the ultimate goal would be full affiliation at all 
levels of the new organization, and insisted that 

the officers of the new union would actively 
support that goal. NEA agreed and the pieces of 
the unity agreement began to fall into place in 
December 1997. 

“We anticipate a vote this summer” 

On January 21, 1998, Mr. Chase and Ms 
Feldman sent a joint progress report to state 
officials and staff. “We are now closer to this new, 
united organization than ever before,” it read. 
“Over the last several months, after a series of 
intense negotiating sessions, our 
AFT and NEA negotiating teams 
have reached conceptual agreement 
on a long list of important issues 
that need to be resolved before any 
new organization can be created.” 
Then, the big news. “We 
anticipate a vote this summer at the 
AFT Convention and the NEA 
Representative Assembly on the 
principles defining a framework for a united 
organization. Passage of these principles would 
constitute a formal commitment to create this new 

The report laid out the various provisions upon 
which NEA and AFT had agreed. These 
provisions were ultimately incorporated into the 
Principles of Unity. It also outlined those issues 
which would not be addressed by the principles 
(instead being left for the writing of the new 
organization’s constitution and by-laws), but 
which would have a major impact on the 
subsequent debate and vote. These issues included 
the new dues rate. Chase and Feldman noted, “We 
haven’t talked about a national dues rate and the 
share of dues that would go to each level.” 

In February, the finishing touches were placed 
on the document and on March 11, Mr. Chase 
presented the Principles of Unity to the NEA 
Board of Directors, state affiliate presidents and 
executive directors. The honeymoon lasted only a 
few weeks. 

Early in the discussions, 
the decision was made 
that no one would lose 
his or her job due to the 


Left at the Altar 5 

Principles of Unity 

There were eight Principles of Unity — broad 
axioms with varying amounts of detail regarding 
how they would be advanced. A large number of 
these details drew immediate criticism and played 
a significant part in the subsequent debate and 
vote, but only two were compelling enough to 
trigger organized opposition. It should not have 
surprised NEA’s top officers that one of these was 
a precondition that derailed the 1973 negotiations: 
affiliation with AFL-CIO. But the second detail 
turned out to be even more important: the new 
organization would reduce the power of the state 
affiliates in shaping the national union’s policy. 

Sticking Point #1 - AFL-CIO affiliation 

The Principles of Unity stated: “The United 
Organization will be a national affiliate of the 
AFL-CIO” and that “The United Organization’s 
goal will be full affiliation with the AFL-CIO at 
every level.” The NEA negotiating team thought 
this splitting of hairs would satisfy the state 
affiliates that were wholeheartedly opposed to 
AFL-CIO affiliation. They would not be required 
to affiliate. Opponents refused to draw that 

Their objections had two elements: the first 
philosophical and the second pragmatic. Mr. 

Chase had spent more than a year addressing 
union members across the country on his doctrine 
of “new unionism.” In general terms, new 
unionism discards the union’s confrontational 
approach to bargaining and public education issues 
in favor of a collaborative approach. It accepts 
responsibility for the quality of the product — 
educated students. Mr. Chase repeatedly referred 
to industrial-style unionism as a remnant of the 
past, no longer suited to today’s environment. He 
encouraged the comparison of teaching to other 
white-collar professions, such as law and 
medicine. Many members saw affiliation with the 
AFL-CIO — the symbol of old-style industrial 
unionism — as contradicting this new emphasis. 

Secondly, many state affiliate presidents, 
particularly those in right-to-work states (states 
that do not allow mandatory union membership or 
representation fees as a condition for 
employment), knew that affiliation with AFL-CIO 
would cause wholesale defections from the union. 
They feared that independent teacher groups 
would seize a recruiting opportunity. Bob 
Gilchrist, president of the Iowa State Education 
Association and one of the ringleaders of the 
opposition, put it simply: “If members think we 
are ‘just a union’ they will stop joining and join 
the PEI — Professional Educators of Iowa. They 
are just waiting to send out a mailing.” 

Sticking Point #2 - States’ rights 

The Principles of Unity centralized the 
operations and decision-making of the new 
organization well beyond anything previously 
found in NEA. In order to ensure that all the 
current leaders of NEA and AFT would support 
the plan, the new governance structure had to 
contain sufficient high-prestige positions for 
everyone. This led to a compromise that was much 
closer to the top-heavy AFT model, which has 
weak state affiliates. This in turn would reduce the 
relative influence of NEA’s state affiliates and 
staff, even though there was a guarantee of no 
layoffs. This goes far to explain why state affiliate 
staffers were so lukewarm, if not hostile, to the 
merger plan. 

NEA has three national officers who are 
elected by the delegates to the Representative 
Assembly. The Principles added four more vice 
presidents. These seven people would be full-time 
employees and oversee the day-to-day workings of 
the union. NEA has a nine-member Executive 
Committee (including the three national officers) 
that meets seven times a year. This would have 
been replaced by an Executive Board of 37 
members (including the seven national officers) to 
meet seven times each year. 

6 Mike Antonucci 


The key bone of contention was the NEA 
Board of Directors. This body consists of some 
160 representatives (at least one from each state) 
that meets five times a year. Through its votes, the 
board exercises some control over decisions made 
by the Executive Committee and the national 
officers. Under the Principles of Unity, the Board 
would be disbanded in favor of a 400-member 
Leadership Council. Meeting only three times each 
year, the council would have included all state 
affiliate presidents, presidents of all local affiliates 
with more than 2,500 members, and others elected 
at-large from the states. 

The real problem was the new council’s lack 
of policy power. The Principles said that the 
Leadership Council “Will advise, assist, and make 
policy and program recommendations to the 
United Organization convention, officers, and 
Executive Board.” Many state affiliate leaders, 
particularly those from smaller states, saw this as a 
move to silence them. 

Less than four months remained until the vote. 

A large number of state affiliates had already held 
their state conventions and so would not be able to 
formally debate the Principles and hold non- 
binding votes on them before the Representative 
Assembly in New Orleans. Mr. Chase and his staff 
had a plan for those states that still had 
conventions upcoming. They would personally 
appear at the conventions, answer questions about 
the Principles, and quiet any fears. Such a strategy 
would pick up individual delegate votes even in 
difficult states. This, coupled with a natural 
advantage in framing and controlling the debate 
during the Representative Assembly, would be 
sufficient to gather 75 or 80 percent of the delegate 

First up were Illinois and Iowa. Both had 
expressed serious reservations about the plan. 
President Chase would address the delegates at 
both state conventions. Vice President Reg 
Weaver, a former president of the Illinois 
Education Association, would join Chase in 
Illinois and start the ball rolling. 

The Debate 

NEA’s campaign to win votes for the 
Principles of Unity centered on the strength and 
influence that one huge union would have — not 
only in winning political battles in Congress and in 
state legislatures, but also in self-defense against 
the growing criticism of public education. Whether 
the analogy was the pooling of resources or the 
circling of wagons, NEA saw the merger with 
AFT as providing a ready supply of badly needed 
reinforcements. Chase and his staff appealed to the 
solidarity of teachers and of laborers. They 
depicted the proposed merger as a bold step that 
would reap great rewards. 

In Iowa and Illinois they listened attentively. 
But when it came time for the delegates to 
question and debate, they didn’t talk about bold, 
new visions of the future. They asked pointed 
questions about the document they were being 
asked to approve. They wanted details and more 

details. They asked about costs, changes in 
representation and control of policy. And too 
often, questions about the nuts-and-bolts were met 
with vague answers. 

Illinois voted to oppose the Principles by a 2 to 
1 margin. Iowa voted 3 to 1 against. 

Though unhappy with the outcomes, NEA was 
confident it had a workable minority in two tough 
states. Once the big states started to come on 
board, the undecideds would see the inevitability 
of it all. 

By the end of April the results from the state 
affiliate conventions were disappointing, but by no 
means grim. Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, 
Nebraska, Montana and New Mexico all approved 
the Principles. The only other official anti-merger 
vote came from Virginia — which saw AFL-CIO 
affiliation as anathema in a right-to-work state. 

Left at the Altar 7 

Board of Directors vote 

A new opportunity for pro-merger momentum 
arrived on May 2. The NEA Board of Directors 
met in Washington. The Principles of Unity were 
on the agenda and there would be a recorded vote. 
The Board, made up of representatives from the 
states, is a stepping stone to higher office in NEA. 
While representing their states, board members 
also look to their futures in the union hierarchy. 
NEA leaders lobbied them relentlessly before the 

Some five hours of speeches, arguments and 
intense emotion ensued. Then the vote. The 
Principles of Unity passed 106 to 53 — exactly a 
two-thirds majority. Later, some members of the 
Board complained that the vote was a matter of 
loyalty and not policy. If the Board of Directors, 
the state representative body with which NEA 
headquarters had the most clout, could only pass 
the motion by 2 to 1, how would the 
Representative Assembly delegates be swayed? 

The margin was bad news, though one would 
never have known it from NEA’s press release: 

“In a historic vote, the Board of Directors of the 
National Education Association (NEA) today 
voted overwhelmingly to 
recommend that the NEA 
Representative Assembly 
approve guidelines for 
uniting with the America 
Federation of Teachers 
(AFT) to form a new 
national organization.” 

Mr. Chase’s statement 
was even more hyperbolic. 

“This was a vote about our children’s — and our 
nation’s — future,” he said. 

Unfortunately for Chase and his colleagues, 
even his muted victory was short-lived. While the 
Board was meeting, the state convention of the 
Michigan Education Association, NEA’s fourth 
largest affiliate, was also in session. Michigan, of 
course, is one of the most pro-labor states in the 
country. But MEA President Julius Maddox knew 
the minds of his delegates, and he delivered a 
speech in opposition to the merger, citing AFL- 
CIO affiliation as his main objection. 

“We don’t believe enough discussion has been 
given to what the focus of this new organization 

would be or how, in fact, to resolve conflicts from 
competing interests when those interests are part 
of the same group,” he told the crowd. The next 
day, the delegates voted more than 4 to 1 to 
oppose the Principles of Unity. Despite the 
ballyhooed Board vote, there were now more anti- 
merger delegates than pro-merger delegates. 

Time to panic 

NEA went into crisis mode almost 
immediately. State presidents known to be in favor 
of merger were told to bring in as many votes as 
possible. And, like the ward heelers of old, they 
did their best to deliver. 

Pennsylvania State Education Association 
President David J. Gondak and Pennsylvania 
Federation of Teachers president Albert Fondy 
sent a joint letter to the members of their 
respective unions. “We believe that the unification 
of the NEA and the AFT at the national level and, 
subsequently, here in Pennsylvania is truly 
necessary for the survival of public education and 
of our school employee unions — perhaps even 
for the survival of the union movement 
altogether,” the letter read. 

State affiliate staff, and some 
members of the national staff, had 
failed to jump on the merger 
bandwagon. Some felt the merger 
would ultimately lead to 
downsizing and layoffs (though 
NEA vehemently denied this). 
Others, having spent many years 
in the trenches fighting AFT, did 
not want to bury the hatchet. 
Whatever their reasons, they soon got their 
marching orders from NEA Executive Director 
Don Cameron, the man responsible for overseeing 
the staff. 

On May 14, Cameron sent an e-mail message 
to the national and state staffs in which he 
addressed the question of where NEA and affiliate 
employees should stand on the merger issue. 
“NEA is NOT neutral on this issue,” Cameron 
wrote. “Therefore, neither is NEA staff. NEA 
strongly supports, and is actively advocating for, 
the approval of the Principles of Unity by the 
delegates to the 1998 NEA Representative 
Assembly. So, therefore, is the staff.” 


When it came time for the 
delegates to question and 
debate, they didn’t talk about 
bold, new visions of the 
future. They wanted details 
and more details. 

8 Mike Antonucci 

Cameron made it abundantly clear that staffers 
were to put their personal feelings aside and 
follow the game plan. “Consequently,” he wrote, 
“it is my expectation that NEA staff will, 
whenever possible, use available opportunities to 
advance NEA’s unity position and policy.” 

The heavy-handed approach began to backfire. 
Instead of winning support for the Principles of 
Unity, it began to stiffen the opposition. The 
incessant pushing from the national headquarters 
caused something virtually unprecedented in the 
modem NEA. The opponents began to coalesce, 
then push back. 

The first signs were on the Unity Message 
Board. NEA had set up an electronic bulletin 
board on its World Wide Web site for members to 
post comments on the Principles of Unity. Some 
500 messages and responses were posted over a 
period of 10 weeks. The messages ran about 10 to 
1 against merger. 

Anti-merger affiliate 
officers began to preach 
opposition to their own 
members. Bob Gilchrist, 
president of the Iowa State 
Education Association, 
made merger opposition the 
main plank of his campaign 
for a seat on NEA’s 
Executive Committee. 

Michael Johnson, president 
of NEA’s second-largest 
affiliate, the New Jersey 
Education Association, sent messages to New 
Jersey delegates, listing reasons to oppose merger. 
The Michigan Education Association voted to 
spend $2,000 on an anti-merger campaign. 

Even in pro-merger states there were pockets 
of strong anti-merger sentiment. NEA’s New York 
affiliate voted to support merger, but its largest 
local affiliate, Buffalo, was outspoken in 
opposition. Philip Rumore, president of the 
Buffalo Teachers Federation, sent an open letter to 
his colleagues. “We are being told that the sinister 
forces out there are so great that we need to unite,” 
he wrote. “How many times in history has this 
resulted in horrible consequences because the 
proposed solution was wrong?” 

Anti-merger side organizes 

The noise was getting loud from the state 
affiliates, but it might have come to nothing had 
the state presidents who were opposed to merger 
not agreed to coordinate strategy. Twice prior to 
the Representative Assembly, Gilchrist, Johnson 
and Rumore met with a handful of other state 
presidents. Calling themselves the Coalition for 
Democratic Principles (CDP), this opposition 
faction planned campaign strategy, floor debate 
and, most important of all, an alternative to the 
Principles of Unity. 

Called “Unity Without Merger,” the plan 
would build on the cooperative steps of the merger 
negotiation process. The no-raid agreement would 
be extended, the AFT-NEA Joint Council would 
be renewed, and the two teachers’ unions would 
seek new areas to collaborate. The plan would be 
introduced as a new business item should the 
merger vote fail. 

The anti-merger side had the 
momentum, but they knew what 
they were up against. “This is 
David versus Goliath,” Rumore 
told Education Week. “The 
whole leadership of the NEA 
and their finest PR people are 
lining up to shove this thing 
down our throats.” 

By June 15, the state 
conventions were completed. 
States representing 34 percent of 
the delegate vote were pro- 
merger. States representing 32 percent of the 
delegate vote were anti-merger. The remainder had 
taken no formal position. 

The handwriting was already on the wall. The 
Coalition for Democratic Principles had almost all 
the votes it needed to sink the merger already, and 
these were solid. States like Pennsylvania and 
Ohio, crucial to any hope for Chase and his Unity 
Caucus (as the pro-merger forces called 
themselves), failed to get resolutions of support 
through their conventions. States that were in the 
pro-merger camp, like California, Wisconsin, 
Georgia and New York, still had sizable anti- 
merger minorities. It was going to take an electoral 
miracle for merger to pass. 

“This is David versus Goliath. 
The whole leadership of the 
NEA and their finest PR people 
are lining up to shove this thing 
down our throats.” 

Left at the Altar 9 

But NEA had pulled off electoral miracles 
before, most recently in California, where it had 
helped wipe out a 40 point polling deficit to defeat 
Proposition 226, the “paycheck protection” 
initiative that would have restricted the practice of 
automatically deducting PAC contributions from 
the paychecks of union members. The Unity 
Caucus, backed by the influence of NEA 
headquarters, would pull out all the stops. 

Mr. Chase authorized a special mailing to each 
delegate. The letter urged a Yes vote for the 
Principles of Unity as a defense against 
“extremists” who want to control public education. 

“I feel a sense of urgency,” Chase wrote. 
“Tenure rights, political participation rights, 
retirement systems, and health care programs are 
under assault from political and economic 
ideologues. Well-organized, well-financed special 
interests want to privatize education. We can’t 
allow that to happen.” On a “campaign trip” to 
Kentucky, Chase read from a list of “extremist” 
organizations generated by NEA staff (such as 
Americans for Tax Reform and the Alexis de 
Tocqueville Institute) to illustrate the nature of the 
threat to a group of Kentucky delegates. 

NEA also worked the media. Chase told the 
Associated Press on June 8: “Although there are 
some who are against it, there’s absolutely no 
reason why we can’t get the two-thirds vote.” He 
called a press conference in Washington on June 
10 to explain the procedures for the vote. “We are 
confident that we will in fact get that two-thirds 


vote,” he said. “We are working hard at it.” 

There was no such frenzy on the AFT side. 

The AFT Executive Council voted 29 to 0 to 
support the Principles of Unity. There were a few 
lonely voices in Oklahoma City and Fairfax 
County, Virginia speaking against it, but it 
appeared to be a foregone conclusion. Other AFT 
merger opponents were merely laying low, hoping 
NEA would vote the thing down so they wouldn’t 
have to speak up. “AFT is big on reprisals,” one 
prominent AFT leader told me. 

Having spent months handicapping the vote, I 
was bewildered by NEA’s sense of confidence. On 
June 8, 1 predicted flatly in an ELA Communique 
that merger would fail. “In fact,” I wrote, “there is 
an outside chance it will not achieve a simple 
majority.” During the weeks that followed, I 
studied, researched, and interviewed. Just prior to 
the convention I wrote, “Taking all the 
information at my disposal into account, ELA 
estimates current merger support among delegates 
at 53.5 percent. The next (admittedly unscientific) 
step is to estimate how much of the opposition is 
‘soft,’ and liable to be turned by the very real 
pressure that will be brought to bear by the 
national leadership and by those within some of 
the state caucuses. EIA predicts an ultimate 60-40 
vote in support of merger at the NEA 
Representative Assembly on July 5 — falling 
some 650 delegate votes short of the necessary 
two-thirds majority.” 


Mark Simon, president of the Montgomery 
County Education Association in Maryland, was a 
strong supporter of Bob Chase and the Principles 
of Unity: “I think people will form their opinions 
at the convention,” he said. He didn’t know how 
right he was. 

The Maryland delegation was split as it arrived 
in New Orleans for the Independence Day 
weekend, as were more than a dozen others. There 
was still time for the Unity side to turn things 

around. They had a committed cadre of activists to 
promote the Principles. But they were going up 
against opponents who were armed with all the 
same techniques and tactics. For every button, 
poster, pamphlet, and rally the Unity Caucus put 
together, the Coalition for Democratic Principles 
had one of its own. 

At a morning press briefing just prior to the 
opening of the convention, Chase expressed 
optimism about the merger vote. “Momentum is 


4 ^ 

10 Mike Antonucci 

building in a positive way and I am confident,” he 
said. He was merely posturing for the media. That 
morning Keith Geiger, one-time president of both 
the Michigan Education Association and the NEA, 
gave the Michigan delegates a rousing pro-merger 
speech. When he was done, the delegates held a 
straw poll. The results: One vote to support 
merger, almost 500 against. 

Keynote speech 

Addressing some 9,700 delegates, Chase’s 
keynote speech touched all the usual buttons. “The 
NEA will not let extremists colonize public 
education for their own ideological ends,” he said. 
“NEA will not let free market forces exploit inner 
city parents and children for profit. And NEA will 
not let our opponents silence unions and disparage 

When he got to the Principles of Unity, he 
tried the historical, “moment of destiny” approach. 

“These Principles are the functional equivalent 
to our nation’s Declaration of Independence. That 
is, these Principles state the goals and ideals of a 
new, unified organization and lay out the basics of 
how the new organization will operate,” he told 
the delegates. 

The comparison shocked many delegates — 
since the NEA is 
independent and the 
Principles were designed, in 
part, to incorporate them into 
the larger AFL-CIO empire. 

He also compared the 
Principles to the Louisiana 
Purchase, because the 
stewards of our nation “were 
facing the prospect of 
expanding their world by one third.” 

Chase utilized selective citation: “A professor 
named Bruce Cooper said, ‘A big union can tackle 
big problems in big ways. It could annually select 
three major national projects to improve schools 
for children. Such as universal pre-schooling. A 
computer on every desktop. Literacy for every 
student by third grade’.” Chase neglected to 
mention what else Professor Cooper had said 
about the proposed merger: “A single union could 
easily become an oligarchy, with centralized 

power, the re-election of the same leaders term 
after term, and the weakening of dissent within 
union ranks.” 

NEA, which has proved itself so adept in 
shaping the debate over public education, badly 
misinterpreted the concerns of its target audience 
— the member delegates. While the delegates 
wanted to know how the Leadership Council and 
the Executive Board would interact, Chase was 
asking them to merge “for the children.” 

“How will history judge us?” Chase 
concluded. “How will we judge ourselves if we 
don’t seize this moment of destiny?” 

Challengers speak up 

Just before lunch (and after most of the press 
had left) came the speeches by candidates for 
NEA's Executive Committee. Running against two 
incumbents was Bob Gilchrist, president of the 
Iowa State Education Association. Gilchrist was 
an anti-merger leader, and the delegate response to 
his speech was a harbinger of things to come. 

He opened with “I don’t support the Principles 
of Unity and I don’t think you should either.” He 
was interrupted by wild applause. 

“Never mind what it [AFL-CIO affiliation] 
means to the NEA officers or even your state 

officers. I want you to 
focus on the folks back 
in your [school] 
building,” Gilchrist told 
the delegates. 

“A couple of my 
friends have said, ‘Bob, 
you know this merger 
was going along pretty 
good until you folks in 
Iowa and some other states got involved. You’re 
just the proverbial skunk at the picnic.’ Well, I 
guess I’m a bit of a skunk, but this deal has a smell 
to it,” he said to the cheering crowd. 

“This election is not a career step for me,” he 
concluded. “This association is not my career, it’s 
a service project. My career is teaching.” 

Gilchrist’s folksy populism captivated a large 
number of delegates who hadn’t known who he 
was until that minute. The first jarring moment for 
merger supporters occurred when the results of the 

NEA badly misinterpreted the 
concerns of the member delegates. 
While the delegates wanted to know 
how the Leadership Council and the 
Executive Board would interact, 
Chase was asking them to merge 
“for the children.” 


Left at the Altar 1 1 

Executive Committee election were announced. 
Ousting an incumbent from any elected NEA 
office is a virtual impossibility, and Gilchrist 
failed to pull off a miracle. But he received 4,253 
votes — a full 45. 1 percent. 

The stunned looks on the faces of many NEA 
staffers (overlooked by the press) told the story. 

For unity to pass, over 1,100 Gilchrist voters 
would have to support it. The vote was helpful in 
one way, though. NEA now knew exactly how big 
a hill it had to climb. It had 24 hours to swing 
1,100 votes. 

Debate on the floor 

The afternoon floor debate was crucial for the 
Unity Caucus. “This is a pivotal moment in the 
history of public education and of our 
organization,” said Chase as he opened the debate. 

Speakers for and against the Principles of 
Unity alternated at the microphones. From the 
outset, the emotional advantage was with the anti- 
merger side. Gerri Williams of Delaware was the 
first anti-merger speaker. She spoke of her fears 
that a small state like Delaware would lose its 
voice in the larger organization. She choked back 
tears as she told the assembly, “I urge you to vote 
against the Principles of Unity, and save my vote.” 

But if one speaker 
could be said to have 
brought the house down, 
it was Mary Washington, 
president of the Louisiana 
Association of Educators. 

Speaking on behalf of the 
Louisiana delegation, Ms. 

Washington said that 
“today we are given a set 
of principles that makes a 
mockery of our core beliefs.” Focusing on the lack 
of policy-making power of the Leadership 
Council, the new organization’s replacement for 
the NEA Board of Directors, Washington declared 
that reducing that body to an advisory one was 
“unacceptable, unacceptable, unacceptable!” The 
assembly roared as she finished. 

The pro-merger side lined up all its heavy 
guns. The state affiliate presidents from California, 
Florida and New York all took turns at the 

microphone, pleading and cajoling in an attempt to 
reverse the tide. The Unity Caucus was not helped 
by Mike Billirakis, president of the Ohio 
Education Association and a merger supporter, 
who elicited groans and shouts from the crowd 
when he likened a vote against the Principles of 
Unity to a vote against the Declaration of 

Throughout it all, Bob Chase appeared taken 
aback by the forcefulness of the opposition. The 
debate was heated, but decorous. The vote to close 
debate passed easily — after only two hours, and 
34 speakers (17 from each side). This showed that 
neither side felt further debate was likely to sway 

Finally, the vote 

The polls were open for 3 Vi hours on July 5. 

As delegates headed out to vote, the New York 
Times headline read: “Teachers See Close Ballot 
on Big Merger.” The story, by Steven Greenhouse, 
noted, “Even the leaders of the 2.3 million- 
member education association, who are 
campaigning feverishly for the merger, 
acknowledge that the vote, on Sunday, might be a 
cliffhanger and that they might not get the two- 
thirds required for approval.” 

At 12:30, the 
stunning results were 
announced. The cliff on 
which NEA had been 
hanging collapsed. In 
fact, it was a landslide. 
Over 5,600 delegates 
had voted against the 
Principles of Unity. 
Nearly 1 ,400 delegates 
who hadn’t voted for 
Gilchrist voted against the merger. 

As expected, both Chase and American 
Federation of Teachers President Sandra Feldman 
released statements promising continued 
cooperation and collaboration between the two 
teachers’ unions. 

At the press conference following the vote, a 
visibly shaken Chase denied that the vote showed 
the NEA leadership was out of touch with the 
membership. “No,” he said, “I don’t think it means 
that at all. As a matter of fact after the discussion 



12 Mike Antonucci 


that occurred yesterday, I think we are absolutely 
in touch with our members, about the fact that our 
members do want to bring about unity between the 
two organizations.” 

Asked if he or the staff should have done 
something differently, Chase responded, “I’m not 

going to second-guess anything.” 

Chase was emphatic that the embarrassing loss 
did not affect his ability to lead the union. Nor did 
he believe it would have any political impact. He 
is wrong. 

The Future 

The NEA leadership stole a march on the 
Coalition for Democratic Principles by putting its 
weight behind a proposal for follow-on merger 
negotiations. Introduced by Minnesota Education 
Association President Judy Schaubach, the new 
business item called for a survey and analysis of 
the merger vote, to be followed by new 
negotiations conducted by NEA headquarters. This 
effectively undercut the Coalition, which had put 
together its own proposal calling for a panel of 
state and local affiliate leaders to analyze the 
results and set forth the guidelines for any new 

What followed was a three-hour debate — 
longer than the debate that preceded the merger 
vote. Having won the merger battle, the Coalition 
was attempting to occupy its opponents’ territory. 

It was meeting fierce resistance. While the debate 
raged over AFL-CIO affiliation, state mergers, 
negotiating teams, and a dozen other details, the 
delegates were actually trying to determine only 
one thing: Will there be a power shift in NEA? 

The NEA leadership, in cooperation with the pro- 
merger states, was holding its familiar position of 
defending the status quo. The CDP was arguing 
for states’ rights and decentralization of authority. 

Bob Haisman, president of the Dlinois 
Education Association and one of CDP’s 
ringleaders, spoke against Schaubach’ s pro-merger 
proposal. “We believe it duplicates the problems 
that led to the defeat of the unity principles,” he 
said. Bob Gilchrist of Iowa seized upon the 
provision that said state affiliates would be 
“informed of developments.” 

“It says that we will be informed,” he told the 
delegates. “I’ve been informed. I want to be 

A voice vote on the Schaubach proposal was 
inconclusive, and a standing vote was similarly 
challenged. So, the rare NEA roll call vote was 
taken. After an extensive interlude during which 
the delegate votes were recorded, the results were 
announced. By a vote of 53% to 47% the delegates 
selected the Schaubach plan over the Coalition for 
Democratic Principles’ Unity Without Merger 
proposal. Some 1,500 delegates were out of the 
hall and missed the vote. The margin of victory 
was 48 1 votes. The anti-merger side was able to 
add only a single amendment — a laundry list of 
concerns to be addressed during merger 

In an effort to assuage their embarrassment 
about the previous day’s vote, NEA shortsightedly 
trumpeted its “victory.” The NEA communications 
staff sent out a press release that read: “After a 
vigorous three hour debate by almost 10,000 
delegates, NEA members voted overwhelmingly 
to move ahead toward uniting the two 
organizations to better serve children and 
education.” The statement managed to squeeze in 
“overwhelming” a second time, but failed to 
mention the almost even split between competing 

Both sides expressed support for merger. The 
adopted proposal affirmed NEA’s “historic 
commitment to the concept of unity with the 
AFT.” But CDP’s alternative proposal affirmed 
“NEA’s historic pursuit of a single national 




Left at the Altar 1 3 

organization of all education employees.” This is 
not the same thing because AFT has a sizable 
minority of non-educators. It implies support for a 
merger with AFT’s education employees, but not 
the others. CDP’s proposal also referred to NEA 
and the AFL-CIO as “separate, independent 

If the debate had only been about merger 
negotiations, NEA would have been well-advised 
to amalgamate the two competing proposals. This 
would have offered the best opportunity for an 
eventual two-thirds majority. But NEA’s leaders 
saw in CDP’s proposal a threat to their own 
power. So they slapped it down. 

The AFT replies 

The NEA vote stirred up something among the 
previously quiescent AFT delegates. Meeting in 
New Orleans two weeks later, the delegates made 
a special point to boast of their AFL-CIO 
affiliation. “The devil is in the details, and the 
devil is in the NEA,” said Ivan Steinberg of the 
Jersey City State Federation of College Teachers. 
“I am not a manager. I am a teacher. A worker. No 
better than a plumber.” 

Steinberg received sustained applause, and the 
crowd cheered when he shouted, “We are not an 
academic organization! We are union! Union! 
Union!” The chant grew: “Union! Union! Union!” 

The subsequent (though now meaningless) 
vote was widely reported as 1,982 to 46 in support 
of the Principles of Unity. But reporters failed to 

question why the vote was announced on a one 
person-one vote basis, when AFT practices 
weighted voting. The media also failed to explain 
why 1,500 AFT delegates did not vote. Unlike 
NEA, the misgivings about merger in AFT never 
culminated in organized revolt. AFT’s structure 
makes such opposition more difficult and AFT 
dissidents had the advantage of waiting to see 
what NEA would do. 

Without merger, AFT is permanently relegated 
to a distant second place in the battle for teacher 
members. Inner-city schools, where AFT holds 
sway, have the most atrocious problems in public 
education. AFT will feel the weight of severe 
prescriptive measures first. Assuming it doesn't go 
back to raiding NEA locals (a practice of limited 
benefit), AFT is likely to expand its efforts to 
organize workers outside of, or only marginally 
associated with, public education. Higher 
education and private education may also see 
increased AFT organizing efforts. 

The leaders of NEA and AFT went back to 
Washington, DC with: an unprecedented rejection 
of a leadership-backed initiative; a proposal for 
follow-on negotiations that was rejected by 47 
percent of NEA delegates; an upset and 
emboldened opposition faction within NEA; and 
AFT local leaders anxious to highlight their 
differences with NEA. The unions had somehow 
managed to snatch from the jaws of defeat... the 
fruits of another defeat. 


“For NEA leaders to say that the vote would be 
a ‘cliffhanger’ was yet another clear indication of 
just how out of touch they were with delegates and 
their members around the nation.” That is not a 
quote from a union critic. That is an official 
statement from the Dlinois Education Association. 
“The lesson here was that NEA must listen more 
closely to states and local associations and heed 
their advice,” said TF.A President Bob Haisman. 
Certainly, many union leaders in the past might 
have described NEA leadership as “out of touch,” 
but never in public, and never before would that 

leader have been applauded by his members for 
taking such a stand. 

Post-merger analysis has emphasized NEA’s 
and AFT’s commitment to continue negotiations. 
The parochial nature of some of the anti-merger 
arguments (the rank-and-file member is unlikely to 
care very much about weighted delegate voting or 
secret ballots) persuaded commentators that the 
merger vote was only a temporary setback. Some 
have even suggested that the new proposal’s lifting 
of the ban on state mergers makes national merger 
more likely. 


14 Mike Antonucci 

In fact, the campaign and vote on the 
Principles of Unity not only made merger between 
NEA and AFT improbable in the near future, but 
they may signal a sea change in NEA. 

NEA internally divided 

The significance of the crushing defeat of a 
plan — any plan — designed, developed, 
promoted and vigorously lobbied for by NEA’s 
national office should not be underestimated. 
Organized opposition not only fought the 
leadership, but won. Today, delegates who voted 
against the Principles of Unity are not discussing 
what the next merger plan should look like. They 
are discussing the relationship between the 
national union and its state affiliates. “The rank 
and file was organized and fought the machine,” 
said one delegate from Massachusetts. “The 
leadership wants this at all costs and will subvert 
the will of the majority at any cost.” 

An Indiana delegate added: “It’s difficult to 
imagine how the NEA members could have 
elected a more ‘pro-merger’ 
set of leaders. They were 
selling; the members 
weren’t buying.” One of the 
most popular buttons 
available at NEA 
conventions read “I am the 
NEA.” Talk of the 
“machine” and “selling and 
buying” reflects either a new attitude among the 
delegates, or one that has long been suppressed. 

The staff also displayed their disagreement. 
Chuck Agerstrand, president of the internal union 
that represents state affiliate staffers, reported to 
his members about the follow-on proposal: “NEA 
leadership, through parliamentary maneuvering, 
was able to get a new business item adopted that 
sanctioned continued talks. However, it is fair to 
say a large number of delegates were overly 
unhappy in the manner in which NEA leadership 
maneuvered the adoption of NBI-1,” he wrote. 

Such “us vs. them” talk has never been so 
audible in NEA. Even if merger between NEA and 
AFT takes place in the next five to ten years, the 
fear of a monopoly union appears to be dead. The 
attempt to join two unions together is fragmenting 
one of them as it does so. The harder NEA pushes 

for merger with AFT, the more it alienates the 
anti-merger affiliates. And should it manage to 
overcome the opposition, NEA may find itself 
picking up 900,000 AFT members only to lose 
900,000 NEA members. 

When NEA adopted a unified dues structure in 
1972, requiring members to join the local, state 
and national unions, the Missouri State Teachers 
Association withdrew from NEA. Today, it 
remains the largest teachers’ union in Missouri. 
The largest teachers’ organizations in Texas and 
Georgia are also independent of both NEA and 
AFT. On an issue as divisive as merger with AFT 
and affiliation with the AFL-CIO, NEA runs the 
risk of pushing entire affiliates out of its orbit. 
Should enough of them disaffiliate, they could 
conceivably form their own national union — a 
rump NEA, unaffiliated with the AFL-CIO. 

Whether this would be a good or a bad thing is 
unclear. The current merger split in NEA, or even 
hypothetical secession of affiliates and members, 
does not presage an ideological split. Teachers’ 
unions — whether NEA, AFT, 
merged or splintered — will 
continue to seek increased spending 
on public education and various 
protections for their members. It 
seems safe to say that some states 
might experience even more 
politically powerful and coercive 
state teachers’ organizations, while 
other states will find their teachers’ unions 
becoming more flexible and cooperative. 

Who’s in the driver’s seat? 

For the first time, the immediate future of NEA 
is not in the hands of its national leaders and staff. 
For good or ill, it is in the hands of the leaders of 
the anti-merger state affiliates, the Coalition for 
Democratic Principles. The Principles of Unity 
debate and vote proved that no merger can proceed 
without their support. What will they do? If 
rebuffed on merger negotiations, will they expand 
their agenda to include more “states’ rights” 
issues? Will they run a candidate against Bob 
Chase next year? Or will they sit quietly and wait 
for Principles of Unity n? 

Should it manage to 
overcome the opposition, 
NEA may find itself 
picking up 900,000 AFT 
members only to lose 
900,000 NEA members. 

Left at the Altar 15 

How will NEA respond? Will it make sincere 
efforts to accommodate the coalition? Or will it 
merely try to co-opt its leaders one by one? 

NEA will change — whether by choice or 
force. But the answers to these questions will tell 
us what kind of organization it 
will become. They will also 
determine whether the teachers’ 
unions will be part of the public 
education problem or part of the 
solution. A review of NEA’ s 
external communications by 
The Kamber Group in 1997 
concluded: “Public education, 
and the NEA, are in a state of 
crisis. And only a focused, 
crisis-oriented mode of operations will suffice.” 

In a March 1997 letter to Wisconsin Education 
Association Council President Terry Craney, NEA 
President Bob Chase wrote, “NEA has a strong, 
credible and well-deserved reputation as a union 
and a political force. We worked hard to achieve 
our union and political reputation, and it has 
served us well till now. However, according to 
polls, critics, friends, the media, as well as our 
own members, NEA does not possess anything 
approaching a strong and credible voice in the 
education reform debate. That reality for NEA is 
not only alarming, but also dangerous for public 
education. Without a strong, credible voice in this 
arena, NEA cannot continue to protect public 
education; if we cannot protect public education, 
we cannot protect our members and their jobs.” 

Teachers’ unions are an integral part of the 
Democratic Party’s donor and campaign base, but 
for the first time, we are seeing Democrats willing 
to support reforms that the unions oppose. NEA 
not only opposes vouchers, but opposes any 

measure it believes could be the 
first step on the road to 
vouchers. Measures designed to 
aid parents of private school 
children will always bring on 
NEA opposition. This year, 

Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-New 
Jersey), who received direct and 
soft money contributions from 
both NEA and AFT in his 1994 
senatorial campaign, co- 
sponsored an expansion of education savings 
accounts that picked up significant bipartisan 
support. Former U.S. Rep. Floyd Flake (D-New 
York) is a prominent advocate of school vouchers, 
a sign of the concept’s growing appeal to the 
African-American community. Sen. John Kerry 
(D-Massachusetts) recently called for tenure 

Home schooling and Catholic school 
enrollment are booming. Charter schools have 
taken the nation by storm. The public is 
demanding accountability and higher standards. 
Can NEA — even a merged NEA/ AFT — harness 
these forces? The merger debate demonstrated that 
NEA can no longer work its will on a pliant 
membership. Its grip on public education is 
similarly endangered. 

The merger debate 
demonstrated NEA can no 
longer work its will on a 
pliant membership. Its grip 
on public education is 
similarly endangered. 



Mike Antonucci 







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